Fusion Energy: The quest for unlimited power

Imagine a world with a virtually unlimited source of clean energy that could power our cities, industries, and homes without the harmful emissions and environmental impacts of fossil fuels. This isn’t science fiction—it’s the promise of fusion energy. But what exactly is fusion energy, and how close are we to making it a reality?

Nuclear fusion involves combining light elements, such as hydrogen, to form heavier elements, releasing a significant burst of energy in the process. This process, which powers the heat and light of the Sun and other stars, is praised for its potential as a sustainable, low-carbon energy source.

This process contrasts with the nuclear fission process used in nuclear power plants, where heavy atomic nuclei are split into lighter ones. But this is fraught with radioactive waste and safety concerns.

The road to practical fusion energy is steep and fraught with challenges. The foremost obstacle is achieving and maintaining the extremely high temperatures and pressures required for fusion. Similar to those at the Sun’s core, these conditions are necessary to overcome the electrostatic forces that repel the positively charged atomic nuclei. For decades, scientists have experimented with different methods to achieve these conditions. The two primary approaches are magnetic confinement and inertial confinement.

Magnetic confinement, as seen in the tokamak design, employs powerful magnetic fields to contain hot plasma within a doughnut-shaped chamber. Inertial confinement, on the other hand, involves compressing a small pellet of fusion fuel with intense laser beams to achieve the conditions for fusion. Both methods have seen significant advancements but are yet to reach the break-even point, where the energy output from fusion equals the energy input required to sustain the reaction. However, recent breakthroughs have brought us closer than ever to this elusive goal.

The primary fuel for nuclear fusion is deuterium and tritium. Deuterium and tritium are isotopes of hydrogen, the universe’s most abundant element. Isotopes are members of a family of elements that all have the same number of protons but different numbers of neutrons. While all isotopes of hydrogen have one proton, deuterium has one neutron, and tritium has two, so their ion masses are heavier than those of protium, the isotope of hydrogen with no neutrons. Deuterium can be extracted from seawater, while tritium can be bred from lithium. When deuterium and tritium fuse, they form a helium atom, which has two protons and two neutrons, and release an energetic neutron. These energetic neutrons could serve as the foundation for generating energy in future fusion power plants.

Power plants today generate electricity using fossil fuels, nuclear fission, or renewable sources like wind or water. Regardless of the energy source, these plants convert mechanical power, such as the rotation of a turbine, into electrical power. In a coal-fired steam station, coal combustion turns water into steam, which then drives turbine generators to produce electricity.

The tokamak is an experimental machine designed to harness fusion energy. Inside a tokamak, the energy produced through atomic fusion is absorbed as heat by the vessel’s walls. Similar to conventional power plants, a fusion power plant will use this heat to produce steam, which then generates electricity via turbines and generators.

At the core of a tokamak is a doughnut-shaped vacuum chamber. Under extreme heat and pressure inside this chamber, gaseous hydrogen fuel becomes plasma, creating an environment where hydrogen atoms can fuse and release energy. The plasma’s charged particles are controlled and shaped by large magnetic coils surrounding the vessel. This property allows physicists to confine the hot plasma away from the vessel walls. The term “tokamak” is derived from a Russian acronym for “toroidal chamber with magnetic coils.”

Image courtesy : EUROfusion

Fusion energy scientists consider tokamaks to be the leading plasma confinement design for future fusion power plants. In a tokamak, magnetic field coils confine plasma particles, enabling the plasma to reach the conditions necessary for fusion.

The international ITER project in France is the largest and most ambitious tokamak experiment to date. ITER aims to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion as a large-scale and carbon-free source of energy. It’s a collaboration involving 35 countries, including India, and is expected to produce first plasma in the coming years.

The primary objective of ITER is to investigate and demonstrate burning plasmas—plasmas where the energy from helium nuclei produced by fusion reactions is sufficient to maintain the plasma’s temperature, reducing or eliminating the need for external heating. ITER will also test the feasibility and integration of essential fusion reactor technologies, such as superconducting magnets, remote maintenance, and systems for exhausting power from the plasma. Additionally, it will validate tritium breeding module concepts that could enable tritium self-sufficiency in future reactors.

ITER made headlines just last year when it achieved a major milestone: the successful installation of its first-of-a-kind superconducting magnet system. This system is crucial for creating the powerful magnetic fields needed to contain the superheated plasma. This achievement brings us one step closer to achieving sustained fusion reactions.

An alternative method is inertial confinement fusion, where a compact fusion fuel pellet is compressed by high-powered lasers. The National Ignition Facility (NIF) in the United States is leading the way in this research. On December 5, 2022, the National Ignition Facility (NIF), located at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, directed a series of lasers to emit 2.05 megajoules of energy towards a small cylinder containing a frozen pellet of deuterium and tritium, which are denser variants of hydrogen. The pellet underwent compression, resulting in the generation of temperatures and pressures of sufficient magnitude to induce fusion of the hydrogen contained inside it. During an extremely brief ignition, the merging atomic nuclei discharged 3.15 megajoules of energy, surpassing the amount of energy necessary to heat the pellet by approximately 50 percent. This stage is crucial in the journey towards the practical realisation of fusion energy production.

On October 3, 2023, the Joint European Torus (JET) project in Oxford produced power for five seconds, resulting in a “ground-breaking record” of 69 megajoules of power. That energy was generated using only 0.2 milligrams of fuel. In addition, many private companies are making waves in the fusion energy scene.

While these achievements are remarkable, there are still many technical hurdles to overcome. We need to improve the efficiency and durability of fusion reactors, develop materials that can withstand the extreme conditions inside them, and create systems for safely handling and breeding tritium.

Despite these challenges, the potential benefits of fusion energy are enormous. It could provide a nearly limitless supply of energy, reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, and help combat climate change. Imagine a world where energy is abundant, clean, and available to all—fusion energy could make this vision a reality. As we look to the future, the quest for fusion energy represents one of the greatest scientific and engineering challenges of our time. It’s a testament to human ingenuity and our unwavering determination to solve the world’s most pressing problems.

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